Women Who Mean Business
2019 marks the year that the national trade association that serves as the voice of the mechanical insulation industry the National Insulation Association (NIA)—elevated the first woman to serve as President in the association’s 60+ year history. As NIA President Dana Vlk (pictured in photo 9) passes the halfway mark of her term, Insulation Outlook magazine reached out to several women leaders across the full mechanical insulation supply chain to gain their insights on the industry, explore their paths and passions, and share their perspectives on moving forward.
1. Mellanie Askew President/CEO, Coverflex Manufacturing, Inc.
2. Jennifer Ball Regional Sales Manager, Integrated Marketing Group
3. Laura Dover President and Owner, Dover Insulation
4. Ginny Gier Senior Sales Representative, M.I.T. (a subsidiary of Distribution International)
5. Rebecca Mayes Business Development Manager, MC&I-RIDGLOK Panel Insulation Systems
6. Christine Napolitano President/CEO/Owner, Insulation Materials Corp.
7. Sandy Shattles Business Manager–Insulation, Armacell, LLC
8. Tula Thompson Director of Corporate Accounts, Bay Insulation
9. NIA President Dana Vlk Senior Advisor, Distribution International
A Look at the Construction Labor Force
Looking at the construction industry as a whole, according to data on the Women in Construction website1 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women working in construction numbered 1.3% of the entire U.S. workforce in 2017. As of December 31, 2017, approximately 971,000 women were employed in various occupational sectors of the construction industry, making up 9.1% of the construction industry in the United States.
Numerous articles have been published in this magazine and other construction-industry publications about the construction workforce shortage. According to the blogpost “The Construction Industry Has a Problem, and Women Are Going to Solve it,” published by Building Design & Construction,2 “The labor shortage, combined with the world’s continued need for infrastructure, housing, and other construction investment, means that we absolutely need women to join the industry and rise the ranks within the construction workforce. This means we must shake up the status quo and overcome obstacles and excuses that previously prevented us from seeing results. Simply stating, ‘Not enough women applied to my job posting’ or ‘no women raised their hand for this promotion or leadership opportunity’ is not good enough and no longer acceptable.”
In the Room Where It Happens
Seeing other women in the room is a common yardstick by which change is measured— whether it is at industry events, in meetings, or running companies and departments. Visualizing a place in the insulation industry workforce for women is one place to start. For NIA Presidents, one responsibility for industry visibility is to travel to all the regional insulation association meetings to speak about NIA’s initiatives, but that also provides a chance to listen and learn. Dana Vlk recounted this memory from one meeting: “I had a young woman come up to me at one of the regional meetings—and she’s been in the industry 2 to 3 years, with a customer service/inside sales position—and she said to me, ‘I wasn’t sure if this is the right industry for me. But when I heard you talk about your career path, now I can visualize me in this industry and how I belong.’”
Christine Napolitano, President/CEO/Owner of Insulation Materials Corp., a family-owned distribution/fabrication company, observes an increasing number of women at the meetings she attends. “When I started going to events, and I was just starting out more as an observer, I did feel the lack of a female presence at events and in meetings. And now I feel proud when I see more women in attendance. I have a real sense of pride being a woman in this industry.”
Integrated Marketing Group’s Jennifer Ball agrees. Compared to when she entered the industry 15 years ago, she definitely sees more women in the industry and more in leadership positions, especially in her area of sales, nationwide. “I think there are definitely more females and more women leaders. Bigger companies are organizing mentor programs and helping women climb up through the ranks.” Ball participated in one at her former company, ITW, where she received the tools and resources needed to advance her career. She added that Integrated Marketing Group supports women in the industry, especially with attending regional and national meetings as well as training opportunities. Ball herself would like to mentor women moving up in the industry.
Being mentored and mentoring others has been integral for Armacell’s Sandy Shattles’ success and has prompted her to boost other women. “Not only have I worked for strong women who have been pivotal in shaping my direct experiences, I’ve also identified women in my network to mentor because this is so important. I’m also involved in programs that are developed for women by women, such as Women in Energy and Women in Construction. Those opportunities give me a different perspective compared to other training experiences.”
The Power of Insulation
The variety of applications for the insulation industry is impressive to M.I.T.’s Ginny Gier. She noted, “Industrial insulation has brought me on a true-life version of ‘How it’s Made.’ I have been able to walk through jobs at major liquified natural gas (LNG) facilities, refineries, and chemical plants; have seen the cryogenic lines in an ice cream plant; evaluated acoustical benefits of insulation for an ambulance manufacturer; watched marbles melt and turn to fiber glass; and created solutions for a major smoker manufacturer to produce some of the most incredible custom smokers in the industry. There is no corner of this world that industrial insulation doesn’t have a benefit. I have always felt passionate that our industry provides such a service to protect people and processes, and conserves energy.”
Laura Dover took over Dover Insulation, a small contractor in Marion, North Carolina, after her father passed away, and she has learned the industry from the most valuable asset her company has: its employees. She sees the evolution of the industry from several points of view. “As an industry, we’ve had to reinvent ourselves. Much of what we do is the same as it was when my grandfather did this in the ‘20s—the materials have changed, but the process is the same. We have fewer opportunities in textile mills and furniture factories, which is where my father built his business in the ‘60s, and now we do work in a lot of breweries, an industry that is growing in the Asheville area. But really, no matter what the next big thing is, we are the constant—we help people create their product, make their process work, and protect their personnel. There is so much potential going forward.”
Updating outdated specifications and improving energy savings is another area the industry is modernizing. For example, MC&I-RIDGLOK Panel Insulation Systems’ Rebecca Mayes often works with engineers and notes that “Modernizing the engineering specifications that are outdated takes time but is worth the effort because the client saves energy and money in the long run… Knowing that each tank we insulate is a chunk of the energy saved in the big picture is very rewarding.”
Sandy Shattles points out that many of the solutions the industry offers are simple yet so impactful—saving energy and providing comfort and protection in a safe and sustainable manner.
Bay Insulation’s Tula Thompson also emphasizes the value that insulation provides as a constant in an evolving marketplace. “I look forward to continuing to help companies maximize their Return on Investment (ROI) as they face a challenging environment. It takes a very small investment to get a huge long-term return with current, new, and evolving insulation products, which should make for a vibrant industry in the future.”
Dana Vlk adds, “The power of insulation is real. If an insulated system is maintained, the savings from the initial investment can continue for the life of the facility. I can’t think of any other energy solution that can match that! It is important that we transfer our knowledge to the next generation entering our business, and I would like to be a part of that effort going forward.”
A Great Industry with Numerous Points of Entry
Just as varied as the benefits of insulation are the ways that our panel of women entered the field. Jennifer Ball initially was attracted to a job rather than the industry itself, but now she stays because of what the industry can bring to the marketplace and the people in the industry. Rebecca Mayes had a similar introduction and has been involved with the insulation industry for about 15 years and in business for almost 20 years. Although she did not have a background in insulation, she was able to work her way up with help and education along the way.
Ginny Gier had a background in technical sales for the instrumentation industry and relied on her customers and coworkers to learn the technical aspect of insulation. She sees her customers as mentors, observing, “People are eager to be mentors to those who are willing to soak up their expertise and learn. I was so lucky to have so many customers from the beginning of my career who not only taught me about insulation, but also how to be the best salesperson.”
For Laura Dover and Christine Napolitano, who both took over family businesses, the path into the industry was not direct. “Although my sisters and I grew up exposed to insulation contracting through my father’s work, and we all spent time helping around the office and warehouse, my career path to running the business has been rather circuitous. I studied English literature, then became a book editor and writer, and along the way, I imported Italian ceramics. It has been a wild ride, but I am happy to have landed at Dover Insulation, which has been the most challenging and rewarding role of any I have had,” said Dover.
Napolitano’s path to the insulation industry also has been anything but straight. “Insulation Materials Corporation was founded by my father and grandparents 48 years ago. While I always respected the business and my family’s commitment to it, I spent my early adult years in graduate school, studying 15th century Renaissance Italian architecture,” she said. From post-graduate work to teaching preschool, and taking time with her children, her entrance into the business began incrementally. She recalls, “2 days a week became 3, and 3 became 5. I sat at every desk, in every position possible,
starting with inside sales, and listened and learned. I made changes. Some worked well, some didn’t. If the change didn’t help efficiency and productivity, I circled back and tried something new.”
For Sandy Shattles, access to the industry began in college while working on her chemistry degree. As a Research and Development Chemist partnering with clients on innovative new product development, she worked with Armacell as one of her partners; they hired her as Plant Chemist and Process Engineer for the Engineered Foams division. Currently, she is the Business Manager of 4 segments—Commercial Distribution, Industrial, Original Equipment Manufacturer, and Retail—within the Insulation division, spanning across the United States, Mexico, and Central America.
Unlike her counterparts, Coverflex Manufacturing, Inc.’s Mellanie Askew started off in the field as a laborer, welder’s helper, and fitter, among other positions, and then moved inside the office working on scheduling, forecasts, and budgets. As President/CEO, her mantra is that she is willing to give anyone an opportunity. Recently, she began working with Cenikor, which has a 2-year drug and alcohol program and provides labor to area businesses. “We’ve found awesome people and have hired quite a few people full time. Our employees are diverse, and we are all working together—it works and has given me a whole new outlook,” she noted, adding that half her employees are women.
Attracting Women to the Industry
A common theme from many panelists’ experience in the industry illustrated that the barriers to success for women are not what one might expect in an industry that is majority male. Salaries in the construction industry are more equal than they are in the overall workforce. According to the 2017 pay statistics posted on the Women in Construction website3, women in the United States earn, on average, 81.8% of what men make. The gender pay gap is flipped in construction occupations, with women earning, on average, 100.8% of what men make.
M.I.T.’s Gier emphasized, “Every successful female that I’ve met in the insulation industry is successful because…they focus on the passion that they have for their job and the industry. People may think that women in a male-dominated industry may face more discrimination, but that is not the case in the insulation industry.” Jennifer Ball agreed, “At each job, there were always people who were willing to introduce me to key people and teach me the products. I’ve never had any issues being a female in a male-dominated industry. It has just never been a big deal.”
One thing women in top leadership positions can do, according to Christine Napolitano, is make sure that jobs are defined correctly and salaried accordingly. For example, a person who is classified in an admininstrative role but is doing the work of inside sales should be reclassified and paid accordingly.
When asked how to attract more women to their ranks, our panel sees both challenges and opportunities related to education, awareness, and strategies. Napolitano observed, “On one hand, in my own business, I have many positions filled with capable, confident, and successful women, and I see other companies doing the same. On the other, in many work situations, I find myself in crowded rooms with only a few women present. Women are out there in our industry and doing well, but recruiting more of us is important, and that means taking meaningful steps towards diverse workforces. STEM initiatives in schools may help in the future, but for our present workforce, I think having the leadership of a company, whether male or female, open to different methods and strategies of thinking will attract women, as well as being mindful of the particular difficulties that women may face while they are attempting a work-life balance. Corporate leadership must also keep in mind the strength to be gained from a diverse staff, notably the increased insight into meeting the needs of a wider range of customers and better problem solving within your own organization.”
Dover agrees and sees a cultural and generational shift: Employees need to balance the realities of home and work life, and they want to be heard. She is empathetic: “We have to evolve. I surround myself with fabulous people and put them in roles where they excel.”
The entire panel pointed to the environmental aspects of our industry as a positive in the effort to build the female workforce. Tula Thompson noted, “Women might feel that the insulation industry is the same as the construction industry, and it is, to some extent. The product obviously has to be installed. But the opportunity to attract women, I believe, is in the environmental area. Climate change has created an urgency to save energy and to generate clean energy for the future. The benefits of insulation products to our environment and our economy should be celebrated and should create promising career paths for women, and be a strong industry point that idealistic millennials can relate to. We don't do a good job of sharing the big picture of insulation's value. We get lost in the day to day. But the best way to recruit women is to more clearly promote some of the basic statistics—e.g., if we insulated all buildings, commercial and residential, we could reduce energy consumption in the United States by 50% or more. These big picture ideas are appealing to women, and I appreciate NIA giving a voice to women in our industry.” Showcasing the women leaders in the industry will also bring greater awareness. Rebecca Mayes added, “Current women leaders in this industry have a huge opportunity to capture the attention of younger generations.”
Sandy Shattles agrees, “The more women leaders that we have will show the potential opportunities within our industry and will encourage attention. I encourage the women in our industry to continue to network with other women with the purpose of exposing them to the great opportunities women in mechanical insulation have.” And Shattles is seeing results. “Armacell does training courses for contractors and they are seeing more women taking the courses for field installers. I am seeing more women in sales at the distribution level, and they are some of the strongest salespeople we have. I see more women branch managers; more executives at manufacturing operations; and more board members in local, regional, and national associations,” she noted.
Dana Vlk agrees, “I definitely see more women engaging our industry and in our association, which is good news for all of us.”
We asked our panel what resources they would recommend to Insulation Outlook readers, and they did not disappoint. From management to industry-related books, effective time-management tools, and groups and organizations, this list is a treasure trove of where to start and how to succeed.
Great Reads and Guidance on Applying New Insights
Dana Vlk: I have read many books during my career that are great resources: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr., and Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson, to name a few. They can be useful for people in many stages of their career. A book that stood out to me was The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It speaks to the importance of creating the right habits in order to achieve success, how habits are formed, and how bad habits can be changed.
My advice when reading any sort of business self-help book is to consider yourself in every part of the book. Don’t assume the book is talking about someone else; consider all your behaviors and look for areas of improvement. If you find a book that resonates with you, keep the book and read it again in the future.
Rebecca Mayes: I have a book of quotes that sits near my bedside, Great Quotes from Great Women, by Peggy Anderson, that I like to apply to my daily life.
Christine Napolitano: For management, I like Radical Candor by Kim Scott, which focuses on helping managers to be successful and effective while retaining their humanity, finding meaning in their job, and creating an environment where people thrive both professionally and personally.
Mellanie Askew: Traction, by Gino Wickman, was great in helping me manage my organization; and The Laws of Human Nature, by Robert Greene, was essential in helping me with understanding others and myself. On the way to work and the way home, that’s what I do: I listen to books.
Reading Industry Publications, Networking, and Attending Events
Tula Thompson: One of the techniques that helped me during my career has been the networking opportunities available throughout our industry. Industry conventions and trade associations like NIA, have been invaluable tools in learning the issues facing the industry, as well as offering the opportunity to meet and share ideas with the lead performers.
Rebecca Mayes: Attending the regional and national association meetings has been the best resource. The meetings include business seminars, technical committees, contractor committees, and plenty of networking opportunities. These events are always at a beautiful location and venue.
Jennifer Ball: I would recommend reading Insulation Outlook magazine and regional publications, and attending national and regional association meetings and events, including SWICA’s Expo and Craft Competition.
Laura Dover: I would also recommend trying to carve out time and money to attend regional and/or national mechanical insulation trade organization meetings. I attended my first regional meeting—SEICA—not long after I got into this business, which proved to be invaluable. Even for the most experienced in our industry, there is always something new to learn.
Sharing Information and Listening to Each Other
Laura Dover: After my father died, I asked questions and listened, particularly to our long-term employees and customers. These people helped me find my own way in the business. I have found those involved in mechanical insulation to be kind, generous people, who are delighted to share information and stories.
Jennifer Ball: Take every opportunity to speak with contractors and visit active jobsites.
Rebecca Mayes: Reaching out to raw materials manufacturers for support has helped me become more familiar with the technical questions. Using the insulation association’s networking tools has made these efforts very easy.
Sandy Shattles: Finding a good mentor, regardless of your age or experience, is priceless. Consider being a mentor to others. You can learn just as much as the mentee. Another invaluable action is to sit on a committee in a regional or national industry association.
Education and Training
Rebecca Mayes: NIA’s Insulation Energy Appraisal Program® has been a great resource to help clients understand the value of insulation. I use the 3E Plus® program consistently to calculate the savings that an insulation system can provide.
Christine Napolitano: As far as helpful industry resources, I absolutely recommend NIA’s Mechanical Insulation Installation Video Series to anyone new to the industry or as a refresher.
Rebecca Mayes: The MICA Standards Manual is a valuable resource for insulation contractors to communicate clearly to their clients to ensure the end result meets client’s expectations.
Dana Vlk: The MICA Standards Manual has been a great resource for me over the years, as well as a valuable educational tool when I work with people who are new to our industry.
Ginny Gier: Start a journal. Being a mom of 3 and a busy working lady, I keep an amazing journal! This journal contains all the quick numbers, names, and contacts that I write down while sitting in meetings, having a quick phone call with a coworker, interacting with my boss, and on-the-go information. I plan out my week, jot all my notes while talking to customers, make lists of customers I will call that week, remember crazy ideas I have for systems and samples, along with planning out my grocery list and jotting down what we might have for dinner that night. At the end of the day, I will add contacts to Microsoft Outlook, follow up on conversations with emails that I’ve had during the day, and highlight items I need to remember the next day. I review all my journals every time I move onto the next one, and I’ll put the top prospects at the beginning of my newest journal.
Sandy Shattles: I highly recommend Miller Heiman sales processes. I have found Miller Heiman’s tools useful in structuring strategies, as well as furthering development of myself and my team.
Dana Vlk: A tool I find very helpful is Microsoft OneNote, a program to facilitate free-form information gathering. It is simple to use and allows you to gather notes, videos, photos, drawings, emails, etc., in one place. You can move and reorganize as necessary, and easily share information. It was a game changer for me in terms of organizational tools.